My favourite of the Eastertide Gospels is Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It appears at first to be the sort of thing that can happen to anyone while travelling. We might call it the Law of the Large Train Station: someone there whom you don’t recognise is strangely enmeshed in your life. Take a narrow look at that man at the ticket counter: he knows about, well, that event so long covered by the dust of past years, the one wherein you played an uncharacteristically dubious part. Perhaps, then, it is best not to be too eager to talk to strangers.
Of course the road to Emmaus was not a Large Train Station, and that is what puzzles me. The disciples, Cleopas and Somebody, are travelling away from the action: they are walking from Jerusalem. They are doing so even after they have heard the news regarding an empty tomb, and a vision, and some women. Why are they going to Emmaus?
The famous painting by the Swiss artist Robert Zünd (right) suggests not trouble but peace and wonder. The scene is enfolded by towering oak trees, showing the blue of the sky breaking through white clouds beyond. The human figures are small by comparison, and we look upon them at a distance, from behind. Jesus walks between the two disciples, along a pleasant and shady path. He is robed in white and his right hand gestures towards the heavens.
Each disciple seems wholly absorbed, not to say astonished, by what he is saying. The younger turns his face towards Jesus, his walking stick apparently dragging awkwardly behind him. The elder is half-turned towards us, with a look of impatience, as if he were about to interrupt and ask a question. Their path bridges a small stream that flows towards the foreground. It is as if there had never been a death in the world. We cannot imagine their meeting anyone else on that road.
“My brothers, may the peace of God be with you,” says the poet Statius to Virgil and Dante as he, the “third man”, suddenly appears on the road of purgatory with them; and then Dante proceeds to lead his readers into wonder upon wonder, all made possible by the mysterious grace of God.
The artists and poets view the scene, as is just, in the light of Christ’s rising from the dead, which has already happened, and His appearance to those disciples in the breaking of the bread, which is going to happen that evening in the wayside inn. But what was going on in the minds and hearts of those disciples before Jesus approached them?
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection